by Olivia Knight

The brand world’s current obsession with ‘Creating Communities’ is not surprising really. It’s the logical evolution in brand communication from the autocratic to the democratic. We’ve long since rejected the one-way brand monologue in favour of a two-way conversation with our consumer so we can immediately see the value and reward in creating active consumer communities who talk not just to us but each other. And of course the internet’s ability to break down traditional geographical boundaries has made the idea of global communities of brand fans possible with communication and collaboration easy and efficient.

But before we get too excited by the opportunity the internet offers us to create our own global brand community, before we start setting up face book groups, twitter accounts, myspace pages and youtube channels we should remember that while the internet may indeed replace the fixed geography of the streets with an open and accessible virtual network. It is not the streets or the network that make a community. If we want to establish a genuine community for our brand and consumers it is up to us to establish the right conditions upon which a community can be built, nurtured and thrive.

For those conditions we need only to look to the real world. As any wise anthropologist or frustrated city planner will tell you communities are not the inevitable consequence of social grouping within a specific geography. A community is something very hard to ‘create’. Building a brand new estate with a shop, library and a church at its heart doesn’t make a community – and throwing in a pub or a park doesn’t guarantee it either. There are social conditions that need to present and collective behaviours that need to be nurtured for communities to evolve. To feel part of a community people need to share a sense of purpose, a common set of values and beliefs. And for the community to grow and thrive it needs to draw on collective resource and a culture of support and interdependence to meet common needs and defend against shared risk.

Just as real life communities are not simply made up of people living on the same street, so brand communities are not made up of a number of people who have given you an email address. But of course many a Big Dumb Company makes this very mistake. Whether buying a washing machine, a tire or a packet of crisps the consumer today is invited or co-orced into signing up to the brand ‘community’ – as if establishing the structure of community without a culture to belong to is enough. Of course people may well join your community, it may be so easy or so unavoidable that they do sign up. But lets not fool ourselves, even in this age when ‘consumerism is the new religion’, no sane person sits down with friends in the pub discussing membership to recent sports, book or speed-dating clubs and proudly declares that they have become part of a new ‘washing machine community’ just because they bought a new fluff filter online and forgot to tick the box that said ‘please don’t contact me’.

In order to invite people to willingly become part of your community, yes access needs to be easy, but first you need to establish and communicate to potential community members what (beyond the product or service) your brand’s purpose is, what your values and beliefs are, what you stand for and against. So that your potential members can decide whether or not to join your community and support your cause.

Of course Challenger brands do this naturally. They don’t reverse the abstract idea of community into their brand offer. Instead they build their brands upon a clear set of beliefs that guide their entire business. They establish a cause and communicate what it is about their category or the wider world that they want to challenge and change. It’s these beliefs and this cause that attract like minded consumers to a community that seeds itself around the brand.

And because the Challenger is belief driven rather than solution driven. It is able to genuinely open up and reach out to its users for insight, ideas and problem solving, gaining strength through outside contribution rather than being undermined by it. And as the Challenger can’t rely on costly paid for communication to spread its brand message and ambition there is immeasurable value and benefit in harnessing the collective people power of a consumer community who are willing and able to champion its brand, beliefs and cause.

At its best a brand community offers an open forum for valuable discussion and debate, enables consumer participation in brand ideas and even the co-creation of products and services, the community can help raise awareness and support for a brand and a cause that its members believe in. At best the community doesn’t serve the brand but both brand and community work together for the common good. After all this is what community is all about. And for those brand communities that fail to mutually support and benefit their members? Well its all power to the people… they walk and they talk…

Olivia works for THE CHALLENGER PROJECT from eatbigfish’s London Office.